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Unlikely Settings

Institutions not typically known for their alternative approaches are using therapies such as acupuncture and yoga to treat people with problems ranging from addiction to mental illness.


Every weekday morning at 8:45, a handful of people stroll into a group therapy room in Santa Monica for a unique court-sanctioned treatment. They are lawyers and housewives, gangbangers and construction workers with one thing in common--each has been convicted of a nonviolent drug offense.

Inside, they dab at their ears with alcohol swabs, pour themselves a cup of herbal tea and settle back into comfy lounge chairs. For the next hour, they will listen to meditative music while a licensed acupuncturist inserts five thin, stainless-steel needles into each ear.

"We have found acupuncture to be effective in the detox part of drug court treatment," says Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Laurence Rubin, who oversees Santa Monica's drug court program for nonviolent and first-time offenders. "It was important enough that they wrote acupuncture into the program and got government funding for it."

In a measure of how accepted such treatments have become, alternative therapies can be found today in the most unusual and unexpected of settings nationwide, including many institutions run by bureaucrats more known for red tape than innovation.

The range of therapies includes yoga classes in juvenile halls and probation camps; meditation classes in prisons; massage at hospices, domestic abuse shelters and facilities for homeless women; and acupuncture for incarcerated prisoners as well as drug addicts.

The therapies' low cost and potential for spiritual growth have helped them gain ground in such settings, where it is thought that they may offer something especially valuable to those who are imprisoned, mentally ill, homeless or struggling with personal demons. As society grasps for solutions to these troubling problems, the use of alternative therapies is expected to spread further.

That has certainly been the case with acupuncture, originated thousands of years ago by the Chinese and already far from an isolated experiment in New Age medicine. One of the most common of the so-called alternative therapies, it is used in more than 600 drug rehabilitation programs and is a key treatment in drug courts nationwide, according to Dr. Bryan Frank, president of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, an association with 2,000 physician members who use acupuncture in their practices.

It's a core part of the one-year detoxification and recovery program run by the Clare Foundation, a private, nonprofit drug and alcohol treatment center. The foundation contracts with Los Angeles County courts to provide services for those convicted of drug offenses in Santa Monica, Culver City, Beverly Hills and Malibu.

Although acupuncture has been offered sporadically as part of drug court programs for several years, medical and legal experts have found it so helpful in relaxing patients and reducing cravings for drugs that the therapy has been incorporated officially into the one-year detox and maintenance program for all patients who want it--and most do.

About 80% of those who go through the one-year drug court programs have no further contact with the criminal justice system, Rubin says. By contrast, he points out, 60% of those who are incarcerated for drug offenses commit another crime within two years.

Of course, it's impossible to break down how much of that success stems from acupuncture and how much is due to the drug court program itself, which instead of incarceration puts offenders through detox and then one full year of group and individual counseling, 12-step programs, drug testing, acupuncture and court appearances. If they're still clean by then, criminal charges against them are dropped.

But medical and legal experts say there's no doubt that acupuncture helps.

"Acupuncture is not a treatment in itself, but it seems to help in relaxing people and reducing their cravings," says Bob Mimura, executive director of the countywide Criminal Justice Coordination Committee, an advisory body to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

"It's a little out of the ordinary for us," Mimura admits of the widespread use of acupuncture in L.A. County's 11 community drug courts, which have served 900 people since 1994. "In the justice community, it's very difficult for them to look at new approaches like drug court. But there's growing support for this program."

The use of acupuncture in drug rehabilitation was pioneered in the United States by Dr. Michael Smith, who runs a renowned substance abuse recovery program at Lincoln Medical Center in New York. In 1974, Smith read about a Hong Kong doctor who was using acupuncture to treat addicts in Asia and adapted that research at his own clinic.

Smith says that much remains unknown about exactly how acupuncture affects cravings. Some scientists have linked the treatment to the release of the body's natural painkillers, which might help reduce cravings. It may also relax patients by stimulating the vagus nerve that runs through the ear.

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